How to Make Latte Art at Home
Looking to up your home barista game with some fun latte art? You're in the right place! Here's everything you need to know to get started and a few easy designs to try!
One of the joys and luxuries of getting coffee at a cafe is the professional-quality taste and the exquisite art that tops it off. The performance of latte art can be a difficult one to perfect and may in fact take a bit of practice. But don’t worry, getting started with the basic tools and principles of stretching and pouring milk to create a beautiful handmade latte at home is not far away!
What You Will Need
Espresso Machine with a Steam Wand
Having a machine that produces an adequate amount of bars (pressure) through the steam wand will impact the speed of steaming, temperature, and overall quality of the foam.
Cloth or Kitchen Towel
You will need to have a clean damp cloth on hand to protect yourself from steam as well as to clean the steam wand when you are purging.
There are a few different shapes and sizes of steam pitchers you could work with, but for most at-home espresso machines and cup sizes, a 12-ounce basic milk frothing pitcher works well and allows room for milk expansion.
Milk, like most liquids, has a range of optimal temperatures, and when it has gone past that ideal temperature, it just tastes burnt. If you have ever received a drink that was too hot, you may have noticed the disappointing flavor of burnt milk.
Any mug or cup will work if you aren't too picky. However, if you are really wanting to nail down the different designs of latte art, having a six or 12-ounce cafe mug will help you achieve your goals.
Personal preference of viscosity and fat content will make or break latte art, even for professionals. The absolute easiest milk to work with is whole milk, which has a good balance of fat solids and water. When you use milk such as 1%, skim, or nonfat, the fat is separated and skimmed off the top. This makes the milk very thin, allowing it to quickly burn and get overaerated. On the other end, half and half is made up of half milk and half cream, so the fat content can be between 10-18%. With how viscous it is, incorporating air into the fat molecules is very difficult to do before it gets up to temp—leading to warm milk but no foam.
If dairy isn’t your top choice, fortunately, there are many milk alternatives on the market that have barista editions. ‘Barista milk’ is made to steam easier because of included or added enzymes that alter the proteins, allowing air to incorporate better into the liquid to be able to achieve steaming perfection. This includes the Pacific brand that provides a whole ‘barista series’ of non-dairy milks. So whether you prefer cow, nut, hemp, or oat milk, there is the ability to steam and make art in a delicious milky drink for every at-home barista.
Understanding Foam in Milk
The practice of heating milk with steam started not long after espresso itself was created in the early 1900s. In the 1980s, after espresso gained popularity in Seattle, WA, the practice of making patterns with milk in espresso was coined latte art. This became wildly popular, as it fascinated coffee consumers. Today, baristas with enough skills can even compete in a World Latte Art Championship.
The science behind latte art is fairly simple. The steam wand releases the built-up pressure from the espresso machine’s boiler which can be used to aerate and heat the milk. As air is introduced into the milk, the molecules are stretched and the liquid expands.
When you steam milk at the optimal angle and the right depth, the process will incorporate the perfect amount of air and create a decadent texture called “microfoam”. This microfoam can then be easily distributed into the crema of a perfect shot of espresso. Milk foam is made up of lots of little bubbles from the air that has been pushed and forced into the milk.
When too much air is added, the bubbles will become larger and create a macrofoam. A traditional six-ounce cappuccino includes two ounces of espresso, two ounces of milk, and two ounces of foam. A cappuccino has macro-foamed milk to create a thick froth top, and a barista typically will not produce any art in such a beverage.
On the other hand, if there is not enough air incorporated into the milk, it won’t foam and will be too flat to push through the crema, making it impossible to create a design. You must first conquer the art of steaming and frothing milk to be able to make latte art.
How to Froth Milk
1. Gather Instruments
There is a French culinary term “mise en place” which means to put everything in its place. Making sure to have everything you need handy will prevent any setbacks and allow you to follow instructions properly.
Take your 12-ounce steam pitcher and pour your milk to just below the spout. Steam pitchers may have measurements on the inside wall, usually between eight and 10 ounces. Place the thermometer probe on the left-hand wall of the pitcher. Start this process with cold milk between 32 degrees to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Make sure to clear your steam wand of any water that cooled down and could be hanging out in the wand.
Place the steam wand into your pitcher and angle it down toward the right-hand side, about a centimeter away from the right-hand wall. I have found it helps to let the spout rest on the steam wand and use that as a guide. Then, tilt the handle side down to a 45-degree angle.
Submerge the end of the steam wand just below the surface so you cannot see the holes at the end. Turn on the steam wand, and you will see your milk start to rotate around in a whirlpool fashion.
Within the first two to three seconds of steaming, you will hear the milk start to stretch. This is the sound of air being introduced to the milk. After three seconds, you will submerge the wand further below the surface, maintaining the whirlpool. Be sure not to go too low into the milk where you might touch any surface of the pitcher. The milk should sound like a loud whisper through the rest of the steaming process.
After you have incorporated air for the microfoam, it is important to watch the thermometer as the milk rises in temperature. Milk will continue to warm for a few seconds after turning off the steam wand, so look to stop steaming between 140 degrees to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The outside of the pitcher surface should be just at the “too hot to touch” level, and the milk will sound like it’s puttering like a kettle about to whistle.
Turn off the steam wand before removing the wand from the milk. After steaming milk, it is important for proper machine maintenance and care. You will need to purge the steam wand of any milk that may have been sucked back up into the wand. Take care to use a damp cloth to wipe off the outside of the steam wand to prevent dried milk solids from crusting onto the wand.
9. Swirl and Tap
Remove the thermometer probe and use the counter to lightly tap the pitcher. This will burst any large bubbles that may be on the surface of the milk. Swirling the pitcher will also help to reincorporate any separation of foam from milk that may have occurred during the purging and cleaning of the steam wand. Milk with beautiful microfoam will have the consistency of wet paint and very few larger bubbles to tap out.
Pour a fresh shot of espresso into your mug and swirl. Then, grab the bottom part of the mug handle with your non-dominant hand and use your dominant hand to pour your milk. Start by tilting the mug slightly to create a larger surface area for your canvas. Pour the milk slowly into the center of the espresso shot, then pick up speed as the cup fills. When the mug is a little more than half full, lower the spout of the milk pitcher closer to the surface and start pouring with a bit of controlled urgency.
Creating Latte Art
There are many different latte art designs that can be achieved by four basic pours. These are a monk's head, heart, tulip, and rosetta.
A monk’s head is the most basic design element. It is done by simply allowing your milk to continue to pour into the center of the cup leaving an even ring of crema around the perimeter and pulling the pitcher up at the last second to create a tiny indent of crema in the larger foam-filled center. The monk’s head is the building block of every other composition you wish to paint.
A heart uses the same principle structure as the monk’s head. You create the foam-filled center, and then as you pull up at the end, you will also pull through to create the indents of the heart at both ends.
The tulip is a series of monks’ heads and hearts stacked on top of one another. Instead of pulling through on the initial pour, you will lift up and repeat another round of pour until you get the desired amount of levels. In the final heart, you will pull through.
Finally, a rosetta, which resembles leaves, is the more complicated of the basic patterns to accomplish and requires a level of finesse. You will want to pour with the same intentions as your other designs, but as you pour, you will use your wrist to gently rock the pitcher back and forth. You will then pull backward from the center, letting the spout rest at the top to get a small heart at the top. To finish, do a small pull-through similar to that of the monk’s head.
Practice and Patience
The best advice is to remember that even with all this helpful information, skills will come with time. Even professional baristas who may make hundreds of lattes a day will need time to be able to hone their ability to pour latte art. Remember the basics, and you will be making delicious and beautiful lattes in your own home cafe. If you have any questions, reach out to a Coffee & Espresso Expert here on Curated and we can help you dial in your espresso setup so you can get crafting!